Friday, May 20, 2011

The Ballad of Alvaro Luna Hernandez

The police hatred of Alvaro in West Texas, especially in Alpine, is fierce, both personal and political, and decades old. Alvaro has always refused to submit to police authority and abuse; sort of like a rebellious slave in the spirit of Fredrick Douglas, but more like a modern-day Gregorio Cortez. When he was 17 he smashed up some police squad cars as well as the personal vehicle of a racist Sheriff following a police confrontation, a stunt which landed him three years in prison. Years later, in 1976 following an escape from county jail—at which he was awaiting transfer to state prison for the wrongful murder conviction—and subsequent shootout with law enforcement, Alvaro was taken to a windowless "conference room" in the jail where he was beaten within an inch of his life by several on-duty police officers. The cops took turns beating and stomping their handcuffed captive, causing him to lose consciousness, his face, eyes, and lips swollen and bloodied beyond recognition, his scalp ripped open with blood pouring from his head onto the cold concrete floor. Once the police were finished, they dragged a bloodied and unconscious Alvaro across the jail and threw him in a cell, leaving him for dead. The near fatal beating meted out to Alvaro resulted in federal criminal civil rights indictments of Pecos County Chief Deputy Sheriff Mike Hill and Deputy Sheriff Bill Mabe, culminating in misdemeanor convictions and probation for the officers. For his part, Alvaro was awarded substantial monetary compensation for damages following a civil suit. The convictions of the officers, however mild, ultimately destroyed their careers as policemen, thus earning Alvaro a special animosity in local law enforcement circles for daring to fight back against police on their own terms, both in the streets and in the courts.

The Alpine police and the Brewster County Sheriff's office were, of course, all white and patrolled the Chicano barrio south of the tracks daily and nightly with a brutality usually reserved only for the town's "meskins."

"People were scared of them," Alvaro writes in a letter from his prison cell, recalling how as a young boy he would go looking for his father or grandfather in the local bars, the Sheriff would often barge in, gun on his hip, to intimidate, arrest, and humiliate Chicano men and elders simply as a means of letting them know "who was boss."

Just months after getting released from the custody of the TYC, something happened that would change Alvaro's life forever. It was June 12, 1968. Alvaro was hanging out with his best friend, Ervay Ramos. The two buddies were cruising around Alpine in Ervay's brother's car when red police lights started flashing in the rear view mirror. Ervay was, like Alvaro, 16 years old, but didn't have a valid driver's license. He sped off and the police car gave chase. Fishtailing through a back alley with the wail of the siren growing louder in the distance, Ervay quickly stopped and told Alvaro to jump out of the car. He drove off and struck a nearby fence next to the football practice fields and landed in a ditch. With the cop car getting closer, Ramos jumped out of the car and ran down the alleyway hoping to escape. Alvaro was just feet away and saw with his own eyes what transpired next.

"The police car, driven by Bud Powers, a well-known cop with a reputation in the barrio for being racist and brutal, pulled up and stopped [behind] the Ramos car," Alvaro vividly recalls. "[Powers] stepped outside, pulled his revolver and shot the fleeing Ramos in the back with his .357 magnum pistol killing him instantly."

The murder of Ervay Ramos was one of a number of similar killings of Chicano youth by police in the Southwest at the time. Officer Bud Powers received a proverbial slap on the wrist—five years' probation—and never served a day in jail. The killing of Ervay Ramos was cited by the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights in their 1970 report to the President entitled "Mexican Americans and the Administration of Justice in the Southwest" as one of several examples of what the Commission referred to as a pattern of "serious police brutality" and "widespread discrimination" suffered by Mexican-Americans at the hands of law enforcement officers and the U.S. judicial system in the Southwest United States.

So when Alvaro moved back to Alpine in 1995 with political struggle and courtroom justice for his slain childhood friend on his mind, he was met with considerable police opposition. He was working as a freelance paralegal for attorneys throughout the state when Alpine community members began approaching him for help regarding police brutality and other injustices in town. They had seen Alvaro on television when he was in Houston, working against the death penalty and police oppression. They knew about his impressive record of civil rights activism and how he had litigated a number of successful federal and state civil rights lawsuits against Texas police, judges, and prison officials. Moreover, citizens sought out Alvaro for help because, in addition to being a prominent public critic of racial and social inequalities in Alpine, it was well known—both by the general public, as well as by law enforcement—that he was working on re-opening the 1968 Ervay Ramos murder case with the intention of bringing his killer, policeman Bud Powers, into federal court on murder charges.

The response of the Alpine police to all of this was to organize and carry out a sophisticated campaign, in the spirit of the F.B.I.'s "counter intelligence program" (COINTELPRO) of the 1960s and '70s, of surveillance, harassment, and repression against Alvaro. They hired a local heroin addict, Mary Valencia, to work as a police informant, ransacking his legal files and personal belongings while working as a maid at the motel he was staying at. Police followed him around, subjecting him to unjustified searches and harassment.

Worse yet, the police convinced the father-in-law of an Alpine Police Sergeant—a man who was known around Alpine as a local town drunk—to falsely accuse Alvaro of armed robbery—a ridiculous frame-up charge which Alvaro ultimately ended up getting dismissed in court while acting as his own attorney. In the meantime, however, Alvaro bonded out of jail by selling his car to the bail bondsman, but just weeks later the bondsman "withdrew" from the bond, unbeknownst to Alvaro at the time.

On July 18, 1996 Sheriff Jack McDaniel showed up on Alvaro's doorstep looking to re-arrest him. Brewster County's new sheriff was far from an anonymous cop just "doing his job." McDaniel had been cited in a victorious civil rights lawsuit filed by Alvaro against then-Sheriff Jim Skinner a few years back. Moreover, it was no secret around town that Alvaro was investigating Sheriff McDaniel for corruption and embezzlement of funds from the county treasury—funds that Alvaro alleged were being used at McDaniel's private ranch in West Alpine. Coupled with his work on re-opening the Ramos case and his long history of resistance to local police power, Alvaro argues that the prerogative of the cops was clear: "The police all knew what I was up to and they were determined to stop me at all costs."

When questioned on the legality of the arrest—for which no warrant was presented—an enraged McDaniel pulled his gun on Alvaro. Fearing quite literally for his life, Alvaro disarmed the Sheriff in self-defense before he could shoot, told McDaniel to leave, and then fled the scene. Nobody was injured. For three days Alvaro was able to evade law enforcement in the rugged countryside of Brewster County during the course of what was one of the most massive manhunts in recent West Texas history. Following a shootout with police at his mother's house, Alvaro was captured and charged with two counts of aggravated assault; one for allegedly pointing the gun at Sheriff McDaniel after disarming him, and another count for allegedly shooting an officer, Curtis Hines, in the hand during the shootout.

At the trial, witnesses testified that Alvaro never pointed the gun at McDaniel. McDaniel accused Alvaro of pointing the gun at his chest—threatening him with a deadly weapon—but Alvaro swears this is a lie. In a live interview on local television on July 18th following the confrontation at Alvaro's house, McDaniel told viewers that Alvaro had only disarmed him and neither threatened nor shot him.

"Days later," Alvaro explains, "when the Sheriff met with the District Attorney he changed his story to say that I had not only disarmed him but had pointed the gun at him—the difference between a minor misdemeanor and a first degree felony offense." The videotape was ultimately kept out of court proceedings; Alvaro's lawyer Tony Chavez is rumored to have potentially struck a backdoor deal with the prosecution. At the time, Chavez was under investigation himself for drug trafficking and was facing many years in prison under a plethora of forthcoming RICO charges. In fact, just months after Alvaro's trial, Chavez immediately took a plea bargain and was sent to federal prison for 30 months and disbarred from the practice of law.

Throughout the trial numerous witnesses, including former law enforcement officers, also testified to the intense, longstanding police hatred of Alvaro. Alvaro was found not guilty on the second count of shooting Officer Hines in the hand (it was determined that Hines was hit by a ricocheting police bullet). Despite considerable public protest, however, the nearly-all-white jury found Alvaro guilty of "aggravated assault" for allegedly pointing the gun at McDaniel's chest—an accusation which Alvaro vociferously and consistently denies to this day.

Alvaro Luna Hernandez was sentenced to 50 years in state prison in the summer of 1997. He will not be officially "eligible" for parole until 2021.

Though his appeals have all been exhausted, options still remain within the legal system to bring about Alvaro's release. The KOSA TV videotape interview with McDaniel may still exist, and a full review of federal, state, and local files pertaining to Alvaro, and his ex-lawyer Chavez, is likely to shed light on Alvaro's conviction and political imprisonment. Obtaining the pro bono assistance of one or more bright legal minds to help pursue other existing, and very promising, legal avenues to reenter the courts continues to be a top priority and a potential source of hope.

There is one thing, however, that remains clear and undisputed: absent a substantial popular mobilization and grassroots campaign pushing for his freedom, Alvaro faces a virtual life sentence of incarceration in the brutal control units of Texas' state prisons. Yet in the meantime, although buried deep beneath the razor-wire fences, uncounted tons of cold steel, and the rows of soul-destroying concrete cages of Hughes Unit Prison, Alvaro Luna Hernandez remains among America's most fearless political prisoners, incessantly struggling for freedom, locked up but never defeated.

Original report here

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